The Fundraising Song and Dance
“From my first-hand research, there are three dance styles that seem to attract funders, particularly in the social impact space.”
I have spent a fair bit of my working life trying to convince people to give me money to “do good.” I have raised funds in the non-profit foundation world, the social enterprise impact capital world, and the for-profit venture capital world.
Fundraising is often referred to as a “song and dance.” It’s an exhibition, much like the mating dance of those iconic Birds of Paradise in Planet Earth.
Just as the male Bird of Paradise hops and fans his tail towards what he hopes is a future Mrs. Bird of Paradise, we in the human world engage in similar rhythmic rituals.
From my first-hand research, there are three dance styles that seem to attract funders, particularly in the social impact space: the Sustainability Shuffle, the Impact Pop & Lock, and the Innovation Turf.
Each one is a different type of pitch, each a different attempt at going into the middle of the dance circle and showing off your moves to see if the audience scowls or gives you a round of applause. Funders all have different tastes. Some prefer the dedicated and deliberate Shuffle. Others look for the well-rehearsed, meticulous perfection of the Pop & Lock. And a special few want to be totally wowed with something they have never seen before: the Turf.
The Sustainability Shuffle
The Sustainability Shuffle requires matching the swagger of a for-profit with a dash of save-the-world bravado. This pitch requires mirroring the VC world, pointing your dancing shoes at indicators like market size, cost of customer acquisition, and most importantly, revenue traction.
The dance starts with defining the problem, and then growing the speed and size of your movements as you hit the apex of your pitch by dropping the potential market size of change and your traction to date. These funders often have made their money in the tech sector, having been All Star shufflers themselves, and have now moved into the non-profit/social enterprise space. They believe that doing good can be married with doing well, and they want to see you combine the two in your dance.
For this pitch, the most important thing is having that swagger that comes with saying, “We will make money.”
These funders believe your business does not require grant funding long-term to stay alive; you are dancing to prove that eventually you can be self-sustaining. Show that soon enough you won’t be shuffling for funding, you’ll be hustling for clients.
The Impact Pop & Lock
The Impact Pop & Lock is a variant of the Sustainability Shuffle, but instead of showing off your revenue-generating footwork, you are dancing to your impact metrics. Because impact metrics are much more ethereal than revenue, this dance style is harder to judge, and therefore the funders require tight precision in your delivery. Hence the sharp, deliberate movements of the pop & lock; if you do it poorly or half-heartedly, you’ll look like the middle-school dance version of yourself you have been trying to forget all these years.
When dancing the Impact Pop & Lock you can choose your choreography, popping and locking any part of your body you care to, and moving in any direction. Similarly, your impact metrics can measure whatever output your organizations totes, be it lives saved, students graduated, or disease cases reduced.
However, your math has to be perfect, and the funders better not be able to find any holes in your logic, or any externalities that you did not account for.
If you can bring a third party to prove your impact, like a randomized control trial (RCT), you are rocking. Having a RCT is sort of like delivering your dance as a flash mob. It says, “There is a whole crowd of people dancing to this in synchronicity — this can’t be a mistake.”
The Innovation Turf
The Innovation Turf is something so cool, so shiny, and so new, that no one has ever seen it before. This is freestyle, especially when compared to the tightly choreographed performances above. If you haven’t seen someone turf, Google “turfing dance” (for a great example, watch this Turf Feinz video). It’s new, it’s sexy. There is no guarantee of impact, no guarantee of sustainability, but darn it, it’s so sexy, it could end up on the TED stage.
And for this dance, that is what you need to be thinking. What is my big audacious insight that could be curated and put on the big stage? What will wow them?
Some funders don’t like this; they are risk-averse, and want to make sure their money is going towards something proven. Don’t bother dancing for them. Instead dance for those funders who get excited when hearing something new, who are out there looking for the next big thing.
The Innovation Turf needs to tell a great story. The funders want to be part of a story they have never heard before. You need to tell that story with your movements, taking the funder through the arc, and pulling them onto your stage so they become part of the dance too. Because there is no impact, no revenue, just the idea, the story is what you are selling — the assured destiny and the amazing awesomeness of your story. Your movements need to demonstrate your ability to glide across the dance floor like it was ice, moving effortlessly, hiding muscle contortions so it seems like you’re sure to succeed, no matter how crazy this might be.
When you start out, you will inevitably need to learn the Innovation Turf. But eventually, your first product/idea/organization will no longer be innovative, and you will have to fundraise without a flashy new idea. You’ll need to dedicate time to learning how to do the Sustainability Shuffle or Impact Pop & Lock. You can dabble in both, but you can probably only master one of them. And they take a few years to perfect. You’ll need to get that RCT started early, or you will need to put in place a business development team to get your revenue growing.
At the end of the day, just as with any dance, from the polka to the ballet, from the VC world to foundations, technique is important, knowing your audience is important, and practice is important. But just as with dancing, nothing can substitute pure confidence.
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